A lot of people remember the bliss of their earliest reading with a pang; their current encounters with books offer no more than faint echoes of what they once felt. I’ve heard friends and strangers talk about the days when they, too, would submerge themselves in a story, surfacing only to eat and deal with the minimal daily business of children. They wonder why don’t they get as much out of books now. If you dig deep to the roots of what makes someone a reader, you’ll usually find the desire to recapture that old spell. But as we get older we acquire another set of reasons for picking up a book: because reading is “good for you,” for example, or because it was assigned by a teacher. People read to fend off the boredom of long flights, to find out what kinds of books get published nowadays, to stay abreast of what’s new, to catch up on what they should have learned in school, to hold their own in cocktail party conversations, to be able to say they’ve read Moby Dick.
No wonder we pine for the days when we read only for ourselves. Many years after I first opened The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I learned that C.S. Lewis, too, was a literary critic, and that he, too, was interested in readerly pleasure. He had the eccentric notion that the delight people take in a book might give us some clue to its worth. In a slender volume entitled An Experiment in Criticism, one of the best books about reading I have ever found, Lewis suggested that the literary preferences of children are significant because, “children are indifferent to literary fashions. What we see in them is not a specifically childish taste, but simply a normal and perennial human taste, temporarily atrophied in their elders by a fashion.”